If you’re wondering how to teach the concept of counting, you’re not alone.
Imagine if your child could count up to 10 before they started school? They’d have a solid mathematical foundation. A love of numbers. And they’d be amazing at Mathematics.
But teaching this early learning concept can seem like a daunting and impossible task. Especially if you don’t know where to start and how to help them.
You don’t need to worry anymore. Because in this post we’ll break down this difficult concept into 8 simple stages of counting. And suggest activity ideas for each one and how you can build them into your day. By the end of this post, teaching your child how to count will be a breeze!
Before we talk about how to teach the concept of counting. Let’s look at what we mean when we say counting.
What is the Concept Of Counting?
The concept of counting involves being able to count a group of objects. Saying one number name for each one. And knowing how many there are in total.
Why Is Counting So Important?
Counting is an essential building block of Mathematics. If a child has trouble counting, they won’t be able to solve more difficult mathematical problems. Like adding or subtracting for example.
Counting also helps us make sense of the world.
What Are The Stages Of Early Counting?
There’s a lot of learning that happens when your child is trying to master this concept.
Here are the stages. Knowing these will help you understand how to teach the concept of counting.
As you can see, there are 7 stages involved in early counting. They are:
- Rote counting
- Counting objects (unreliably)
- 1:1 correspondence
- Reciting numbers past 5
- Cardinal principle
- Finger numbers
And the final stage (and end goal) is to be able to match the written number to objects.
Your child may not achieve the stages in this order. For example, they may learn to recite numbers past 5, before they can subitise (more on this below.)
If this is the case, just work out what they already know. So you then have an idea of what concept of counting you need to focus on next.
What the Stages of Early Counting Mean and Activity Ideas For Each
Here are more details about each stage of counting. As well as activity ideas and ways you can teach each one.
1. Rote Counting
Rote counting is being able to say number names in the correct order. Your little one will use their memory to do this. And the numbers won’t have any meaning to them yet.
Before your toddler is able to count by rote, you’ll notice that they say numbers randomly. This is normal and is typical for toddlers ages between 16 to 26 months.
There are hundreds of ways you can help your child learn rote counting. Ultimately, it’s about practise. And the more variety and experiences you give them, the better.
Tip: At this stage, count up to 3 or 5 and not beyond. It’ll help them learn these first numbers quicker.
Activities to Help Kids Learn Rote Counting
Set your toddler a challenge and see if they can finish tidying up or getting dressed by the time you count to 3 or 5. You’ll need to count slowly if they’re anything like my toddler!
Encourage your child to play with blocks and build towers. Count as they build. Then count up to 5 together before destroying it.
Sing simple counting up songs like 1,2,3,4,5 Once I Caught a Fish Alive.
Use their favourite toy and pretend it’s counting. Use different voices. And make it do silly things whilst counting. Like jumping on the sofa or rolling on the floor.
2. Counts Objects (Unreliably)
Once your child is able to count by rote, they’ll start to count objects. Yet, you’ll find that they’ll often miss numbers. For example, when counting a group of 5 objects, you’ll probably hear something like: “1, 2, 4, 7, 5.”
Once again, lots of practise is needed at this stage. So make sure you give them lots of opportunities to count objects.
Encourage them to count things they can’t see too (not tangible), like sounds or movement.
Activities to Encourage Counting Objects
Count each step when walking down the stairs.
Cut snacks into chunks and count how many there are.
Give your child a small amount of dried pasta to play with. Put it in different pots, pour it out and encourage them to count it. Let them pretend to cook and use it for role play games too.
Subitising is when your child is able to tell how many objects there are just by looking.
They don’t need to count.
Have a look at the picture below. How many bears can you see?
Did you count them? I’m betting you didn’t need to because there’s only a small amount. This is you subitising!
Your child to be able to subitise with up to 3 objects, so keep this in mind when doing activities.
Most adults can only subitise groups of items up to 5. We use other mental strategies for anything beyond this. You may think you recognise when a dice lands on 6. But you’re subitising 3 and 3 and adding them together!
Subitising Activity Ideas
Dice games are great for encouraging your little one to subitise. But you’ll need to adjust the dice first (remember they’ll only be able to subitise up to 3). To do this, place a sticker over the higher numbers – 4, 5 and 6 and add in the numbers 1, 2 and 3 instead.
Try using a giant dice too. It’s a great way to get them moving and burning off excess energy. Once again, make sure 1, 2 and 3 are the only numbers showing on the dice.
Roll the dice and ask them what the number is (they may need to count the spots at first). Then give them a different action each time. Like jump like a frog 3 times. Do 2 log rolls. Show me 1 star jump.
4. One to One Correspondence
1:1 correspondence involves physically counting the objects. Pointing to each item and saying one number name for one object.
Let’s take a look at some examples.
This child is showing they know 1:1 correspondence. They said all the number names correctly and moved their counter one jump for each number name they said.
This child doesn’t know 1:1 correspondence. Although they’re saying all the number names in the right order. They’re moving their counter too fast. So each jump doesn’t have 1 number name.
Activities That’ll Help Kids Learn 1:1 Correspondence
You’ve probably been teaching your child 1:1 correspondence without knowing it. If you’ve ever pointed to a set of objects whilst counting out loud, then you definitely have.
Continue to show them how to do this. Look for different opportunities throughout the day and use lots of different objects.
- Let your child prepare dinner with you. Chop vegetables and count the pieces
- Encourage them to count their toys as they’re playing
- Count the pictures when you’re reading stories
- Let them use playdough to make their own creations. Then count how many they have.
Playing simple board games is another easy and effective way to teach 1:1 correspondence. They’ll have to slowly move their counter whilst saying the numbers. And using the dice will also encourage them to subitise (tell how many there are without counting).
Here are some fun and simple dice games that teach 1:1 correspondence.
5. Reciting Numbers Past 5
Reciting numbers past 5 involves lots of rote counting. Once your child has mastered this stage, they’ll be able to say the numbers 1-10 in the correct order.
This is where many parents fall into a trap.
They often teach numbers way over 10, thinking they’re helping their child to learn more. But this doesn’t actually help them. Because rote counting only helps children to memorise the number names.
So teaching them numbers beyond 10, doesn’t mean they’ll be able to understand how many objects they have. And it doesn’t mean they have a good sense of numbers either. Because they’re only reciting.
So if your child is able to say the numbers 1-10, move onto the next stage of counting. Save rote counting to 20 and beyond once they’ve mastered all of the stages in this post.
Rote Counting Activities
Try the fun rote counting activities we mentioned before. But this time, make sure you count up to 10 each time.
Read books that have numbers as part of the story. Dog’s Colourful Day is a fun book about colours that also teaches kids to count!
These 17 simple ideas are also a great way to practise rote counting.
6. The Cardinal Principle
The cardinal principle of counting involves counting objects in a set. And knowing that the last number they said, is the total number of items they have.
So if you give them 5 sweets. They’d point to each one, saying one number name (1:1 correspondence). Then they’d be able to tell you that there’s 5 altogether.
Let’s look at some examples.
Question – Which picture is showing a child has mastered the cardinal principle? A or B?
You’ll find the answer at the end of this post!
Use previous activities to help your child learn the cardinal principle.
But this time, remember to ask how many they have (once they’ve finished counting!)
7. Finger Numbers
Showing finger numbers is the next concept your child will need to master. They’re only expected to be able to show up to 5 at this stage.
Your little one may understand this concept already. Lots of kids are able to show others how old they are using their fingers before they can say the number names.
Studies have proven the importance of finger numbers. Kids using their fingers are more likely to achieve higher mathematics achievement!
And if they’re not using their fingers, numbers will never have a normal representation in the brain.
So encourage your child to use finger numbers right from the start!
Finger Number Activities
Here’s a great way to introduce your child to the concept of using their fingers to count. And teaching them they have 10 fingers.
Finger plays are also great for learning finger numbers. Here are a few simple rhymes that encourage them to count up using their fingers.
8. Matches Numerals to Objects
The end goal of early counting is for your child to be able to accurately count objects. And use written numerals to show how many there are. This is where number recognition activities will help.
Matching Objects to Numerals Activities
Point out numbers in everyday life. Like when you’re moving up the levels in a car park. See if they can tell you the number and show you the amount using their fingers.
Use number puzzles that involve children matching the numeral and quantity.
Have a set of number flashcards handy. Add them into their play setups to encourage counting. Play hide and seek with them and ask them to find the number of objects shown.
Here’s a couple of online games they’ll love too.
Two Other Principles Of Counting
There are two other principles of counting worth mentioning. They are abstraction and order irrelevance.
Abstraction is where your child will be able to count random objects in a set. Regardless of their colour, shape or size etc. Or if they’re not related in any way.
A child that knows order irrelevance understands the following:
The total number of objects stays the same, regardless of where they started counting.
Here’s a quick way to see if your little one can or can’t do this.
Encourage them to count a small set of objects. Then ask them how many there would be if you started counting at a different object.
They understand order irrelevance if they tell you the total, without counting again.
They don’t understand if they go back and start counting the whole set again.
Abstraction and order irrelevance aren’t vital. But mastering them will help your child to become effective at counting. You don’t need to teach these principles on their own. Plenty of counting practise will help them learn these two things.
Tips On How To Teach the Concept Of Counting
Now you know the early stages of counting. Here are some tips on how to start teaching your little one the concept of counting.
Have a look back at the stages of counting. And first, figure out what your child can already do.
Can they rote count up to 5? Are they able to count a group of objects but skip numbers? etc.
Once you know this, look at the next stage they need to learn. And try the suggested activities.
Feel free to print the stages of counting infographic. It’s a handy checklist you can use to keep track of what your child can do and what they need to learn next.
Look for opportunities to teach counting throughout the day. Try to join in with their play and encourage counting. They’ll learn more this way because it’ll be fun and meaningful for them.
Teaching your child to count isn’t an easy task. This is particularly true if you have a toddler and the whole idea of numbers is new to them. But knowing how to teach the concept of counting will make learning a breeze.
Don’t forget to print out the stages of counting infographic so you can look back at it.
Once your little one has mastered the early stages of counting you can move onto more complex concepts. Here’s an idea of what the next stages involve.
- Counting to 20
- Counting backwards (10,9,8…)
- Comparing numbers using language such as more than, less than, fewer and equal to.
- Look at what happens to a set of objects if one is added or taken away.
- Counting in 2s, 5s, 10s
And last but not least… The answer to the question.
The question was:
Which picture is showing a child has mastered the cardinal principle? A or B?
Answer: Picture B shows that the child has mastered the cardinal principle. Well done if you got it right!